Review: Chak De India

Posted on August 11, 2007


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Shah Rukh Khan plays a women’s team coach in an entertaining, if not entirely satisfying hockey saga.

AUG 12, 2007 – I’M NOT SURE this is entirely intentional, but the first time Kabir Khan (played by that other Khan, Shah Rukh) steps into a hockey stadium and strolls through its expanse, we note that the plastic bucket-seats are a shade of orange, that the walls are painted white, and that there’s nothing but the green of the playing field beyond – and this image beautifully sets up the crux of Shimit Amin’s Chak De India, which is about the national sport meeting the national spirit. Kabir is a former hockey player who takes on the only-in-the-movies task of making World Championship winners (in a mere three months) out of a disparate bunch of “chakla-belan chalaane wali Bharatiya nariyan.â€? (Desi homemakers: that’s how Anjan Shrivastava, hamming it up as the oily sports authority who’s the mandatory villain-figure, dismisses the women making up the team.)

Chak De India is ostensibly the story of real-life Indian goalie Mir Ranjan Negi, but we’ve seen these events unfold so many times on screen that the film slots itself instantly as A League of Their Own meets Prakash Jha’s Hip Hip Hurray. This is a similarly – and expertly – well-oiled compilation of sporting clichés that, on paper, make you groan but never fail to get you each time on screen: the underdog aiming for the million-to-one shot at glory, the team being a microcosm of India (with each player from a different state), the rebel who comes around in the end for the common cause, the infighting, the outsize egos, and, perhaps the biggest cliché of them all, the washed-up coach seeking redemption. But the way the latter comes through is anything but cliché. As was the case with the mopey loser he played in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Kabir Khan is another gutsy character choice for our biggest star, and what’s gutsier is the way he appears to have surrendered to the director’s vision of this character.

Amitabh Bachchan played a character with a similar arc – a once-successful man who goes underground after being disgraced, only to return and redeem himself as some sort of savior – in Kaala Paththar (Yash Chopra’s underrated retooling of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim), but where Amitabh roiled with angst, Shah Rukh approaches his destiny with almost Zen calm. There’s, of course, that trademark shot of Shah Rukh’s – the one where a close-up reveals a face almost entirely immobile save for the region around the mouth, the ever-so-slight tremors around the thinly-pursed lips suggesting that the actor forgot to spit out the gum he was chewing before the director yelled “Action!â€? But otherwise, this is a remarkably restrained performance.

He rarely raises his voice except on the odd occasion where he breaks up a catfight between the girls, and even his rah-rah, pre-match inspiration speeches come across as extraordinarily rehearsed; his measured tones make it appear that he isn’t addressing a group of would-be giant killers so much as a bunch of little old ladies bent over their embroidery. Another movie – one that went for easy melodrama (not that there’s anything wrong with easy melodrama) – may have had him break down before his team about his infamy, an incident that would have spurred them to avenge their father-figure, but all Kabir does here is spur them to play for their country, and for each other. This is a film about team spirit in its truest sense.

But as wonderful it is to see the biggest name in our cinema today sharing equal time with a group of no-names – and as wonderful as Shah Rukh is – this performance (rather, the conception of this character) throws the movie off a bit. Chak De India can’t resist giving its hero a back story, but it’s also extremely coy about filling us in on this back story. I loved that the years Kabir Khan spent in self-imposed exile, after being disgraced, are a mystery to us. Late in the film, we see him fingering the silver medal he won after his flub cost his team the gold, and it’s not easy to read him. It’s a private moment that stays private; only he knows why he chose to come back as the coach of the flailing women’s team, that too after seven long – and surely agonising – years away from the game.

But is Chak De India really the kind of film where we want unspoken internal monologues? Somewhere along the line, I began to get the feeling that this is one time Shah Rukh really needed to have played to the gallery – for almost everyone else plays the broadest of caricatures, and the narrative itself is the broadest of contrivances. Scene for scene, I could sense the director trying to break away from filmmaking cliché – and yet, his story, his very format is a giant cliché. What is Javed Khan’s part if not an updated version of the benevolent Ramu kaka that was once AK Hangal’s stock-in-trade? What is it if not a lazy stereotype that the actress who plays the Punjabi team member has the kind of build that instantly qualifies her as a potential lead in a Hunterwali remake? What is it if not an easy potshot that a player’s cricket-star fiancé is a chauvinistic boor who all-too-expectedly sneers at her hockey-star aspirations? And what is it if not pathetic-fallacy melodrama that a key moment of conflict – okay, internal conflict – occurs during a major downpour, the skies weeping for our hero’s plight?

Kabir Khan seems to belong in a different movie than one containing these beloved elements of our popular cinema, one whose eardrum-busting background score all but holds up cue cards about the emotions you’re meant to register at any point. And yet, there’s no denying that part of the attraction of Chak De India is watching it flip-flop between what it could have easily been (a flat-out pump-your-fist-in-the-air sporting flick) and what it strives nobly to be (a more grounded, more textured pump-your-fist-in-the-air sporting flick) – and even outside the handful of beautifully conceived sequences (like the one where the coach deftly deflects a sexual proposition from one of his girls), the film is never less than watchable.

One reason is surely the foolproof-ness of the rooting-for-the-underdog-team genre, the underdog nature of this team emphasised brilliantly by a group of non-actors. (The standouts for me were Chitrashi Rawat, the pint-sized small-town girl with a huge chip on her shoulder about big-city méms, and Shilpa Shukla, as the team’s rebel without a cause.) But more importantly, there are slivers of reality amid all the sporting fantasy, touching reminders that we may be watching a fairy tale but one that’s set in our own backyard. A lot of heads in the southern part of our country will be nodding at the scene where a Telugu-speaker goes to register for training camp and she’s referred to as a Tamil. “Tamil aur Telugu mein kitna faraq hai?â€? the man at the desk mumbles, not as a question so much as a rhetorical statement. The girl doesn’t take affront; she merely replies, with the not-again weariness probably identifiable only by people from below the Vindhyas, “Utna hi, jitna Punjabi aur Bihari mein hai.â€?

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi